[A]t first, they open the door to their home and greet me with “you have the worst job in the world”, followed by “how do you do this?”
They are pet owners and they are referring to the fact I am a hospice veterinarian. I am at their home because I am a mobile hospice veterinarian. I am at their home to help them say goodbye to their most loved companion, their family dog or cat.
When I enter their home, people often apologize for the dirty dishes still in the sink or the mess on the floor. I am blind to their clutter and I never judge them on the cleanliness of their home. What I do notice are the blankets and pillow on the couch.
You see, when an older pet is no longer able to make it upstairs to the owner’s bed, the owner’s bed gets moved to the family room couch. These are some of the final precious moments owners have with their pet and they don’t want to miss out on any of it by sleeping apart for their last few weeks or days together. It is a slumber of true love.
Goodbye at home is a gift
Being able to say goodbye at home is a gift people can provide to their beloved aging pets. Veterinary Aid in Dying, euthanasia or putting a pet to sleep are all terms for the final act of love pet parents are often called on to do for a pet that is suffering. This suffering may be physical and/or emotional and can deeply affect the owner as well.
From the Greek translation, euthanasia literally means “good death”. Our pets are most deserving of a good death, especially after the unconditional love and dedication they showered upon us during our memorable lives together.
When I began my in-home hospice and palliative care service, my goal was to ensure everyone had the opportunity to allow their pet to pass with dignity and love.
Comfort and privacy
Today, along with three other compassionate veterinarians, we are able to provide this service to pets and their owners in the comfort and privacy of their homes. Being able to provide this personal and meaningful service is an honour and responsibility I don’t take lightly.
Home is where the heart is and home is where the dog is. This is their safe space, their favourite place. This is where they lived and this is where they should be allowed to die.
Euthanasia at home, performed by a skilled veterinarian, ensures our pets are not stressed, are not in pain and have a peaceful, love-filled passing. Something they no doubt deserve, and something we all hope for ourselves.
So now, by the time I leave, “you have the worst job in the world” changes to “what an emotionally rewarding job you have” and “how do you do this?” changes to “thank you for doing this”.
[P]ets are part of the family, so it makes sense that losing one is tough on everyone, including our children. A pet’s death may be the first time they’ve ever experienced a real loss, and as a parent, it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation about life, death, and grieving in a way they can understand, but that won’t heighten their sadness.
Last week, we put our 12-year-old dog to sleep five weeks after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was a brief but rapidly debilitating illness, and I wondered if my kids would understand that a dog who was quite healthy only two months ago was now gone. Surprisingly, they took it much better than I did. My 3-year-old gave me a hug, then told me, “I don’t know why you’re crying, Mom. Gus was sick, and now he’s in heaven with grandma’s dog. He’s not sad he died. He’s still happy.”
After briefly wondering if my child was a pet psychic, I realized that his logic was pretty sound. While my son would miss our dog, he knew our pup had been suffering, and he was prepared for the death. He had processed the loss faster and more easily than I did precisely because he was a kid. If you’re dealing with the loss of a family pet, here’s how to help your children process their feelings.
Make sure your child understands what death means. Gently make sure that your child understands that their pet’s death means the animal will never be physically present again. Don’t be alarmed if it takes awhile — even years depending on their age — for your child to understand that means that your pet can no longer breathe, feel, or ever be alive again. If the death was sudden or unexpected, explaining why or how your pet died might be important to help your child understand the permanence of the loss. Of course, consider your child’s age and ability to understand and only give them developmentally appropriate information.
Be honest. Telling your child about the death openly and truthfully lets your child know that it’s not bad to talk about death or sad feelings, an important lesson as they will have to process many other losses throughout their lives.
Follow your child’s lead. Sometimes children are better than adults at accepting loss, especially when they’ve known for some time that their pet had a limited life span or was ill. Don’t attempt to make your child’s grief mirror your own, but do validate any emotions that come up as your child goes through the mourning process, and be ready to talk when they have questions. Age-appropriate books like Sally Goes to Heaven and I’ll Always Love You can also help with communication.
Don’t be surprised if your child grieves in doses. Children often spend a little time grieving, then return to playing or another distraction. This normal, necessary behavior prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and makes the early days of grief more bearable for them.
Say a formal goodbye. Consider having a small memorial service where you can all say goodbye, discuss favorite memories, and thank your pet for being part of the family, even if the service is just in your backyard or around the kitchen table.
Find a way to memorialize your pet appropriately. We often don’t realize how constant our pets were in our lives until they’re gone. By making a photo album, turning a collar into a Christmas ornament, or commissioning personalized art work through Etsy, your whole family will have a positive remembrance of your beloved pet for a lifetime.
Tips on how to guide little hearts through their grief to help them deal with their loss and recover from it
By Jennifer Walker
[S]aying goodbye to a pet is an inevitable experience many families will experience.
And telling the truth to children and allowing them to grieve is crucial in helping them deal with their loss, as well as recover from it.
“I think it is important to tell children the truth but depending on their age and developmental level, the information you communicate will differ,” said Kyle Newstadt, individual and family therapist and director of Integrate Health Services. “Regardless, they should know the truth and if you know the pet is sick or death is on the horizon, it is important to communicate that with children.”
According to Ms. Newstadt, books can be helpful to introduce the topic to a child with the family without any other distractions. She said parents could explain to their children that the animal has been to the doctor for medicine and that they’re waiting to see if it helps the situation.
“Don’t hide the truth and say the animal is sleeping or he ran away; it’s abstract and kids wont understand that,” said Ms. Newstadt. “Stick to the truth and avoid unknown language, explain death but leave it up to the child and what they’re asking — children can surprise us.”
A toddler is unlikely to understand death but those words should be used, she added.
“Parents could explain that medicine was given to dog and it will help him close his eyes and he will die peacefully,” said Ms. Newstadt. “Wait for them to ask “what does death mean?’ and, depending on religious beliefs, that would be a good time to talk about that.”
According to the local therapist, it is important to allow your child to express their feelings and deal with grief. A pet memorial would be a crucial part of the process for a child and the entire family, she said.
“Ask the child and give them choices in ways they would want to memorialize their pet and maybe each child can think of something they want to do; a burial outside, pictures in places around the house, creating a scrapbook, or a special ceremony to talk about the memories they had with their pet is important and helps them deal with grief,” she said. “This will open lines of communication which is so important when a child suffers from the death of a pet.”
According to Durham Region registered vet technician Sarah Macdonald, it is required of veterinarian clinics to dispose of a pet’s body once it passes away. A large majority of clinics also offer cremation, she said.
According to Ms. Macdonald and Ontario.ca, homeowners are permitted to bury their pets on their own property. For those living in an apartment, Ms. Macdonald recommends cremation.
The ashes can be kept in a special urn inside the pet owner’s home or be scattered in a special location for a ceremony or as part of a memorial, she said.
For those looking for more ways to memorialize their pets with keepsakes, funerals, cremation ceremonies, and more, Ms. Macdonald recommends Gateway Pet Memorial, specializing in pet aftercare throughout North America.
Parents should be focusing on positive coping strategies by modelling self-expression, letting the child know that it is OK and normal to have these feelings of sadness and that it is important to express, said Ms. Newstadt.
“Children experience grief in different ways from adults; there is no right or wrong way,” she added. “They may appear to be coping well and weeks later experience sadness. Meet the child where they’re at.”
According to Ms. Newstadt, parents shouldn’t approach the conversation until the child is expressing sadness.
“It’s OK if the child isn’t demonstrating that they’re sad, there is no right or wrong way to experience grief,” she said. “It is typical for a child to ask questions or to say they’re feeling sad and then engage in play, it’s a developmentally appropriate way of grieving.”
[A]s my family’s “first responder” and resident financial person, I served as power of attorney for my parents, as well as executor and trustee for both.
Their estate-planning documents attended to a lot of crucial issues: the distribution of their assets, the trusts that were to be set up upon each of their deaths, and their attitudes toward life-sustaining care.
Yet having gone through the process of seeing my parents through their last years and settling their estates, I’m struck by the number of “softer” decisions these documents didn’t cover–important topics like their attitudes toward receiving care in their home or in a facility, or whether they’d prefer to die at home or if a hospital was OK. Did I need to split up all of the physical assets equally among the children, or were they OK with me letting more stuff go to family members with a greater need for them?
Implicit in making someone an executor, trustee, or guardian, or delegating powers of attorney, is a statement that that you trust that person’s judgment to do what is best in various situations, including some of those outlined above. But I think it’s worthwhile to think through some of the softer, nonfinancial issues that could arise in your later years. Some of these issues, such as providing for the care of pets or getting specific about the disposition of your physical property, can be addressed with legally binding estate-planning documents. Other issues, such as how you’d like your loved ones to balance your care with their own quality of life, are best discussed with your loved ones and/or documented in writing on your own. (If you decide to leave physical or electronic documents that spell out your wishes on some of these matters, be sure to let your loved ones know how gain access to them.)
Attitudes Toward Guardianship
If you have minor children and have designated guardians to care for them if something should happen to you, you of course need to inform the guardians and make sure they’re OK with the responsibility. In addition, take the next step and communicate to your designated guardians about your priorities and values as a parent–your attitudes toward their education, spirituality, and financial matters, for example. And even if your children are grown–or getting there–it’s worthwhile to talk to close friends or family members about how you hope they’ll interact with your kids if you’re no longer around. After my sister lost a dear friend to cancer, for example, she and a group of other close friends serve as surrogate “moms” to their late friend’s daughter, now in her mid-20s. There’s no substitute for an actual mom, of course but it’s a relationship they all cherish, and they’re happy they discussed it with their friend before she passed away.
Attitudes Toward Life During Dementia
Given the increased incidence of dementia in the developed world, an outgrowth of longer life expectancies, it’s worth thinking through and communicating to your loved ones your attitudes toward your care and quality of life if you develop dementia. Would you prioritize in-home care above all else, or would care delivered in a facility be agreeable if it improved your spouse’s quality of life? Would you want your spouse or other loved ones to try to care for you themselves for as long as possible, or would you rather they delegated those responsibilities to paid caregivers, assuming the family finances could support it? How would you like your loved ones to balance your quality of life with their own? How would you like them to balance your health and safety with your own quality of life? How important would it be to you to receive daily visits from your spouse and other loved ones, even it meant that those obligations would detract from their ability to travel or pursue other activities? Would you prefer to keep your decline as private as possible, or would you rather be out in public interacting with people no matter what? There’s no “right” answer to any of these questions, but talking through them can help your loved ones be at peace with the decisions they could eventually make.
Attitudes Toward End-of-Life Care
I first became aware of The Conversation Project, designed by to help people discuss their own thoughts on end-of-life care, on NPR. In the segment, two adult daughters used “The Conversation” template to interview their elderly dad about the decisions they might eventually make on his behalf. Their father had drafted an advance directive that specified, rather strictly, that he didn’t want any life-sustaining care if he had no chance for a good quality of life. But one of the daughters asked whether it would be OK if they took a bit more time with the decision to let him go if it provided them with a sense of peace. Without skipping a beat, the dad said, “Oh, of course. Absolutely.” That conversation drove home the importance of adding nuance to the end-of-life discussion, above and beyond what could be provided by living wills or advance directives. You can read more about The Conversation Project and download a conversation starter kit here, but don’t feel bound by it. If there are important end-of-life issues that it doesn’t address, feel free to expand the discussion with your loved ones and/or commit them to writing.
Attitudes Toward Funerals, Burials, Etc.
Many people make plans for any funerals/memorials and the disposition of their bodies well in advance; the right approach to these issues may be predetermined by culture or religion. But for other people, attitudes toward these matters aren’t obvious at all, so it’s useful to spell out your wishes in advance, either verbally, in writing, or both. (My mother initially insisted that my dad would be buried rather than cremated, but even she was convinced that cremation was the right thing after we found three written statements from him about his desire to be cremated.) Maybe your wishes are simply to have your loved ones say goodbye in whatever way gives them the most peace at that time; in that case, tell them that or write that down.
Attitudes Toward Care of Pets
It’s a cliche to say that pets are like family members, but for many people, that’s absolutely the case. The good news is that you can actually lay the groundwork for continuing care for your pet as part of your estate plan. The gold standard, albeit one that entails costs to set up, is a pet trust; through such a trust, you detail which pets are covered, who you’d like to care for them and how, and leave an amount of money to cover the pet’s ongoing care. Alternatively, you can use a will to specify a caretaker for your pet and leave additional assets to that person to care for the pet; the downside of this arrangement is that the person who inherits those assets isn’t legally bound to use the money for the pet’s care. At a minimum, develop at least a verbally communicated plan for caretaking for your pet if you’re unable to do so–either on a short- or long-term basis. This fact sheet provides helpful tips to ensure for your pets’ continuous well-being.
Attitudes about Disposition of Personal Possessions
Are there specific physical assets you’d like to earmark for children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or friends? If so, your estate-planning attorney can help you codify the disposition of those assets in your will so there’s no confusion. Also let your loved ones know if there are physical assets that you’d like to stay within the family (again, your will is the best way to do this). Importantly, you should also let them know what you don’t feel strongly about them selling or otherwise disposing of when you’re gone. Do you want your executor to take pains to divide the assets equally among your heirs so that everyone receives tangible property of similar value? The topic of dividing up tangible property among family members is a complicated one, to put it mildly; the more you say about your wishes in advance, the better off everyone will be in the end.
Mourners receive unconditional love from the animals, who often know who needs it most
By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
[J]an Thomas wouldn’t have described herself as a “dog person” six months ago. But that was before she met an 8-year-old Lhasa apso named Angel at a most unlikely place, the funeral home that hosted her sister’s visitation and funeral.
Angel is the official mascot and unofficial therapy dog at Cornerstone Funeral Services, a small family business owned by Elizabeth Fournier in Boring, Ore.
For years, therapy dogs have been used to help in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, schools and even at the site of disasters such as Ground Zero at the World Trade Center. Fournier and a growing number of funeral directors across the country also believe therapy dogs can help people in possibly their greatest time of distress: when they’re making arrangements after the death of a loved one. And the dogs have been greeted — often literally — with open arms.
Dogs in Funeral Homes Offer A Calming Effect
Thomas, 52, said most of her family was prepared for the death of her sister, Tammi, 56, who had battled a long illness. But Jan Thomas’ 18-year-old son, Zachary, was close to his aunt and took the loss hard.
When Zachary, who has autism, was introduced to Angel, the small dog calmed him as he sat for nearly two hours petting and playing with her.
“When Elizabeth told me I could go in with Angel, I did,” Jan Thomas said. “When I went in the room with Angel, I felt more like I was with a friend next door. Elizabeth has a very casual setting with a homey feel and Angel really made a difference for me, she is such a quiet dog. There is definitely something to the calming effects.”
Indeed, many studies have proven that animals have not only a positive emotional effect on humans, but also physiological effects, including reducing blood pressure. And therapy dogs have also shown to have a calming effect on children with autism.
Fournier introduced Angel in the business as a puppy. “I had a baby and brought Sofia [the baby] to work with me,” said Fournier. “Sometimes people would come in and hold her, and when she got older and it was time to quit bringing her to work, people would still come in and ask for her. I realized something was needed to help people cope, so Angel took Sofia’s place.”
Kriss Kevorkian, a therapist who works in private practice in Gig Harbor, Wash., and is an adjunct professor at Walden University, said that it’s especially important for children to have such interaction at a difficult time.
“I’ve worked with kids in therapy who wanted to bring their own pet to funerals and they weren’t allowed,” said Kevorkian. “Animals give us so much unconditional love, as any of us are going through the process of grief, it gives us that extra sense of comfort.”
Michael Perotto has seen that same unconditional love from Rocky, a 2-year-old goldendoodle that he and his family raised to work at their business, Bartolomeo and Perotto Funeral Home in Rochester, N.Y.
When a family is gathered before a service, “he greets every single person,” Perotto said. “Somehow, some way, he can figure out who’s having the hardest time and then he’ll park with that person.”
Rocky is even trained to go with a mourner to the kneeler bench, put his paws on it and lower his head, as if in prayer.
Perotto said he watched one small boy approach the kneeler with Rocky to pray. “When I watched it, it was so moving and so powerful — it’s unreal,” he noted.
Easy to Relate To
Fournier said she has never had any complaints about Angel, but said she learned with Sofia to only include her in the meeting if people were receptive. “I would schedule appointments during Sofia’s nap times; I know everyone isn’t receptive to a baby in the office,” said Fournier. “With Angel, I leave her in the office and if people have an issue with her, she stays there.”
Fournier said Angel seems to also know when people need some comfort and instinctively keeps her distance if people aren’t receptive to her presence.
For Thomas, her only challenge now is the debate at home with Zachary about getting a dog. “We have the conversation almost daily,” said Thomas, laughing. “He really wants a dog.”
[I] live, breathe and eat being a veterinarian. I see a pet on a leash, and I check its gait. I see a grey whiskered dog and think of senior issues. I overhear a conversation about a pet’s illness, and I want to add my two cents.
Work is hard. Work is fun, and every day brings challenges. However, I had no idea when I signed up for this job, the sheer number of euthanasias and sadness I would face.
All pets die, and we know this when we adopt them into our lives. We are angels of death to so many, and this is a very, very important part of our lives.
The veterinary profession is unique when it comes to being comfortable with death. Like many aspiring veterinarians, I thought euthanasia would be the hardest part of my job, but it isn’t – not by a long shot.
MDs don’t get it. In the human world, euthanasia is a grave sin even when someone is suffering from a terminal illness.
“Futile care” occurs when a physician cracks the chest of an elderly patient in multi-organ failure who has just arrested, or the oncologist details a complicated journey for a deadly metastatic cancer.
The older you get, the more likely you are to die in a hospital. According to the Centers of Disease Control, 73 percent of people over the age of 65 die as inpatients.
It sounds like a horrible way to go. I hope that statistic changes as more states enact the Death with Dignity Act, and I add more years.
Almost every day I counsel clients as to “When is the right time to let go?” I have changed my criteria for euthanasia over the years and now answer that question with “Consider 6 things that your pet loves to do. If they are no longer able to do at least half of them, then it is time to let go.” This helps, but it is still far from simple.
Every situation and every family is different. I think relief from suffering is a moral obligation, and that it is better to end life too soon than too late. Euthanasia is truly a gift of love.
Never was this more apparent than last week. You might recognize this family because I’ve already written about Buddy.
I shared Buddy, a magnificent Golden Retriever, with Dr. Sybil Davis (a certified rehabilitation specialist).
When I first referred him to her 4 years ago, he could barely walk from a myriad of problems. In 6 months, he was walking and feeling great again.
His family simply refused to give up on him. He’s been a “frequent flyer” patient for both of us over the years.
This visit was different, and when I stepped into the examination room, I knew he was in trouble. He could barely stand and his breathing was labored.
Although Buddy lived in a family of three, he was really the son’s dog. They grew up together, and Alec brought Buddy in for visits. I always thought of Norman Rockwell’s paintings of boys and children whenever I saw them!
After diagnostics and quiet conversation, it was clearly time to let go, but we would not be rushed in making this decision. End of life should be kind – to the owner, as well as the animal.
I tried to walk the emotional landscape that accompanies the decision to euthanize. Do we refer, try hospice care, sleep on this decision for a day or two and reconsider? Could we give Buddy more days of good living? And, if we euthanize, what do we do afterward?
The whole family was present with Buddy, and the parents deferred the decision to Alec. He knew. I could see it in his eyes, but it was too hard to verbalize.
In his heart, he knew that Buddy had finally worn out. What a wonderful young man to put his dog first, and I know his parents were proud of him.
Buddy didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was a sense of tranquility from sedation, a quiet comfortable room and his family surrounding him. He died with grace and dignity, quickly with no pain. It was a gift from his best friend.
I am sometimes overwhelmed by these last moments, but I am also thankful that I can be a part of them. Without great love, there cannot be grief.
Thank you, Alec, for making the right decision, and thank you, Buddy, for the memories.
[A]ccording to the2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, 68 percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet. For many, these animals are not just companions, but beloved family members. From providing comfort in times of trouble to greeting us at the front door, it’s hard to imagine life without their unconditional love.
Nevertheless, whether you’re the proud owner of a miniature box turtle or mammoth Irish Wolfhound, owners have an obligation to ensure that their four legged friends are cared for when they’re no longer around.
But Erach F. Screwvala, an estate-planning attorney with Screwvala LLC, says that he’s noticed a rising trend in asset base management: unusualpet provisions.
Recently, one NYC woman made headlines when she left $300,000 of her $3 million estate to her two cats. The Manhattan lawyer says that though it’s not uncommon to see vast sums allocated to furry friends, you don’t need to allot such sky high funds for adequate care.
“Amounts higher than this are more common in the celebrity world – for example, Oprah Winfrey supposedly has put aside $30 million for her dogs in her will,” Screwvala said. “If such large bequests are desired, it is critical to provide for distribution of any excess amounts after the death of the pets to avoid burdensome probate proceedings to distribute any remaining money.”
In outlining pet provisions for a well-crafted estate plan, Screwvala suggests taking one of three routes: listing a beneficiary, establishing a pet trust, or finding a trustworthy organization to look after your sweet Fluffy or Fido.
First, a beneficiary will inherit your pet when you pass away; preferably, you can leave them money to provide for the animal. Next, if you desire more control, a pet trust, ideally as part of a revocable living trust, is recommended. While this plan is more expensive to set up, it provides certainty that the pet will be cared for precisely how you want, Screwvala said. It is critical to provide sufficient funds for a pet trust, so that the trustee has ample funds to execute your wishes. This is particularly true with animals that have longer life expectancies, like horses, he adds.
Lastly, finding a specialized animal care organization is a viable option to leave your furry friend in good hands. Make sure that you make arrangements in advance, as many groups will have specific guidelines, Screwvala notes. In his years as an estate planning attorney, Screwvala has encountered many bizarre requests for pet provisions.
“One that really sticks out in my mind was when I was asked to include a diamond dog collar and walking leash. Although, this was a rather peculiar request, it was definitely a wise move, as you can imagine a genuine diamond collar is incredibly valuable!” he said. “However, if the dog collar was encrusted with laboratory grown diamonds I would advise against because synthetic diamonds are of no inherent value.”
Additional requests have included a wardrobe of designer animal outfits and provisions for a custom-made wooden casket for a cat, Screwvala said. While such specific requests certainly gave the owners of those animals peace of mind, establishing your estate plan with straightforward pet provisions is beneficial to all.
“The most important thing people should leave is enough money to ensure that their pet is properly cared for after they pass away,” Screwvala said. He suggests avoiding overtly ridiculous food provisions (filet mignon steak only!) or anything else that might be difficult for the caretaker to fulfill.
Ultimately, one of the smartest moves you can make is connecting with an experienced estate planning attorney who understands your local laws, Screwvala says. This expertise is critical: in some states, provisions for pet care in wills are honorary, meaning that they can be ignored by your heirs.
“They don’t need $300,000, but a loving caretaker, regular veterinarian care, and a couple square meals a day will do wonders!” he said.